Sleepless in Chesapeake Country

 Vol. 10, No. 6

February 7 - 13, 2002

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Ranking Espressos
by Chris Kulczycki

In 1683, during the second Turkish siege of Vienna, a noble spy and adventurer penetrated the enemy’s lines. Franz Georg Kulczycki’s mission was to shuttle vital information between the city’s defenders and the coalition sent to defeat the invaders. As reward for his bravery, Georg was given a huge cache of captured coffee beans. So he settled in newly liberated Vienna and opened a coffee shop, the first in central Europe.

It’s to our distant ancestor that my family credits my love of coffee, which I rank just behind food, but before shelter, on the list of things required to sustain human life. But it was many weeks of travel in Italy that educated me to coffee and to espresso and to cappuccino in particular.

Given these credentials, I set forth on my own mission: to find a truly great cup of espresso and the finest cappuccino in Chesapeake Country, no matter how many sleepless nights it took. Friends and neighbors added names of favorite espresso bars to my own fair list.

My mission began where most such searches end, at Starbucks at Annapolis Harbour Center. There I was served a large paper cup with an ounce or two of lukewarm espresso lurking forlornly in its bilge. There was a little crema and a not unpleasant aroma, but the taste was harsh, weak and lacking character. The cappuccino was the same drink drowned with stiff meringue-like foam and enough milk to mask the coffee.

No, no, I said. Espresso is the highest form of coffee. Water at 195 degrees is forced at up to nine atmospheres’ pressure through lightly packed and finely ground deep roasted coffee beans. The result should have a round, complex and deep flavor, but it must never taste burnt, bitter or harsh. It must exude a rich and pleasant aroma. And it must have crema, that layer of fine tan foam floating on the surface that is the crowning glory of a proper espresso. Espresso is drunk quickly, in one or two gulps, often with sugar and after a meal, or anytime one needs a jolt.

Cappuccino is a breakfast drink consisting of a shot of espresso with a few ounces of steamed low-fat milk poured over it, then garnished with a bit of foamed milk. This all-important foam should be smooth and velvety, not stiff. The froth might be speckled or stained with crema. A cappuccino should taste more of coffee than warm milk. One may linger over a cappuccino, which, along with a pastry, is the ubiquitous Italian breakfast.

There are other coffee drinks: a latte is an espresso mixed with more hot milk; a macchiato is an espresso with just a touch of milk. But I’ll stick to comparing espressos and cappuccinos.

Aha, I said at Giolitti’s, an Italian café/deli in Parole, where I was presented with a proper espresso cup holding a strong, yet flavorful, shot. The crema was thick and the aroma full. The cappuccino, also in a ceramic cup, had a nice, soft froth, and brown crema showed at the edges of the milk foam, always a good sign. Giolitti’s was established in Rome, and you’ll know it by its coffee.

Making espresso or cappuccino is an art. The barista must tamp the ground beans just so lest the drink be too strong or too weak. The shot must be pulled, or drawn, long enough to extract the coffee’s full flavor; too long a pull will make a bitter drink. The cappuccino’s milk must be hot — but never boiled — and skillfully foamed. It requires a well-made, perfectly adjusted and immaculately clean machine. And the beans must be roasted and ground to perfection.

Buzzing into downtown Annapolis, I found City Dock Café. It’s a nervous but pleasant place with an urban coffee house feel. My espresso was harsh, but it was strong and flavorful, too, with a good crema. The cappuccino had thick foam, rather too much milk, though a pleasing if weak flavor.

My quest continued at Aromi d’Italia at Ego Alley. It’s reminiscent of a large café in Italy: coffee, simple food, gelato and a selection of pastries. The espresso had that magical aroma of coffee liqueur and just-ground beans and a labyrinth of flavor. My beautifully frothed cappuccino was the best so far.

49 West at — you guessed it — 49 West Street is a low-key, neighborly café designed for serious hanging-out. Their espresso had a wonderful aroma, slightly alcoholic and penetrating. With its dense crema and smooth rich flavor, it was almost perfect. The cappuccino tasted of espresso and had perfect foam and just the right amount of milk.

The following morning found me at One of a Kind Gallery and Espresso Bar in Chesapeake Beach. It’s a strange and friendly spot serving little paper cups of proper espresso, nice crema, rich aroma, and deep taste. Likewise the cappuccino has the perfect amount of milk and, though topped with rather stiff foam, is entirely competent. They do picture framing, too.

I sped south to the CD Café in Solomons, among my favorite eateries. The espresso came with minimal crema, though the flavor was all there. Nutmeg and a twist of lemon on the plate masked the aroma. Why did they put nutmeg on my coffee; did they mistake it for a muffin? And that lemon twist is an American idea for masking the taste of a bitter espresso. The cappuccino was a bowl of warm milk with a bare hint of coffee, disappointing given CD’s generally excellent food.

At Grounds for Appeal, near the courthouse in Prince Frederick, I found the espresso well represented, thick and complex, but with an odd sour taste. The cappuccino was weak and garnished with too much foam.

Common Ground, also in Prince Frederick, serves an adequate espresso for which I’d return. But it was the cappuccino that was special. It didn’t look like much, too much stiff foam, and at first I thought it slightly burnt. But the more I sipped the better I liked it. It had real flavor and depth.

Onward. The Big Bean, a little takeout shop in Severna Park, creates a fine espresso that’s strong, but not harsh. The cappuccino is also good with delicate foam and abundant coffee flavor. As in most American espresso bars, the servings are huge.

I popped in at Café Boulevard just up the street; it’s a new European style café and bakery. There I found espresso that is nothing short of superb: dense crema, commanding aroma and perfect flavor, robust, slightly nutty and not the least bit harsh. I didn’t want to try the cappuccino lest I ruin my espresso aftertaste. But I’m glad I did; it, too, is superior, with a velvety foam and strong coffee taste.

Next morning I dropped by one of my regular haunts, Café Gurus in Eastport. Of course I expected the usual fine espresso and was served a cup with a thick crema, pleasant aroma and a strong burnt taste. Likewise the cappuccino looked great but tasted burned. Perhaps their espresso machine needs adjustment. Still, it’s a neat place in a counter-culture way.

Pony Espresso on West Street is a welcoming tiny takeout. The espresso looked good, but tasted of perfume, or perhaps it was soap. I thought it was my taste buds wigging out from too much caffeine, so I let someone else try it. “Yep, soap.” The same was true of the cappuccino. I would have guessed someone forgot to rinse the cups, but they were paper.

Seattle Style is a drive-though kiosk on Generals Highway that my wife insisted I try. After honking my horn to rouse the barista, I wasn’t expecting much. Yet the espresso was great, full-bodied, fulfilling, good crema. Too bad about the cappuccino: too much milk and too little coffee taste.

Another drive-through espresso kiosk is Café No Delay on Route 214 in Edgewater. The espresso was very strong, but with a good crema and adequate taste. The cappuccino was also too strong, though by now this was a welcome change.

On a visit to Border’s Books at Annapolis Mall, I tried Donna’s Café. The espresso was burnt beyond recognition. The cappuccino had the same scorched taste though the milk masked it.

Since I was at the mall anyway, I zipped over to Nordstrom’s Espresso Bar, my last stop. They made a high-quality espresso with abundant flavor, perfect crema and a reasonable aroma. Nordstrom’s cappuccino wasn’t bad, nice taste, though too much milk and foam.

Even after 20 tests, this list is not complete. I ruled out any place that was more restaurant than café, where I would feel uncomfortable popping in for just coffee. I didn’t try multiple locations or chains. I also haven’t mentioned spots that serve truly awful coffee, like gas stations with automated cappuccino dispensers and a few cafés that would actually benefit from those dispensers.

It’s not hard to find an adequate espresso, but too many cappuccinos taste like warm milkshakes. I’d suggest going to Café Boulevard, Aromi d’Italia or 49 West for exceptional espresso. If it’s cappuccino you crave, try 49 West, Café Boulevard or Giolitti’s. As for me, I’ll stick to decaf for a while.

Copyright 2002
Bay Weekly